Due to its vast oil wealth, the Niger Delta remains a place of violence, instability, and injustice. For years, civilians on Nigeria’s coast
have battled large oil companies such as Chevron and Shell Oil whose escapades in the region have cost Nigerians their lives and their environment. The fact that natural resources cause conflict is not exactly new news, nor is the abuse of communities in the Niger Delta, but what is new is the attempt by those who have been abused to execute legal action against U.S. companies.
The Alien Tort Claims Act of 1978, which allows foreigners to sue U.S. companies for human rights abuses committed in their countries, is now being employed in a landmark case in California. The Chevron v. Boweto case opened on October 27th to address an incident that occurred on May 28, 1998 in which two Nigerians were killed, two injured, and several more tortured.
Larry Boweto, the lead plaintiff in the case, participated in a peaceful protest with approximately 100 other civilians from the Ilaje fishing communities. Unarmed, they boarded the Parabe oil platform to protest the environmental damage and economic destabilization Chevron’s operations had caused in the region. Seeing this, Chevron Nigeria agreed to talks with Ilaje elders on the mainland to negotiate an agreement that would compensate villagers and ease tensions.
On the evening of May 27th, it seemed an agreement had been reached, so elders invited the protesters to leave the oil platform the following morning. At daybreak, Chevron Nigeria flew members of the Nigerian army to the Parabe platform in Chevron Nigeria-leased helicopters and opened fire on the peaceful protest. Two individuals were shot and killed while two others, Boweto being one of them, were severely injured. A number of protesters were also rounded up after the attack and taken to a prison on the mainland where they were tortured and beaten. According to testimony, Chevron Nigeria’s security officer used a bullhorn to communicate and encourage the Nigerian
Forces during the attack. This incident is not an isolated one – Chevron has committed repeated human rights abuses since the 1998 attack, according to Amnesty International. In 2005, Chevron Nigeria again used violence to quell a peaceful protest at Chevron’s oil terminal at Escravos which resulted in one death and nearly 30 serious injuries.
Chevron’s lawyer Bob Mittelstaedt stated last week during the trial that it is the “duty of a company to protect its workers” and that the 1998 protest was in fact hostile, with several protesters threatening to set fire to the platform. Yes, Chevron does have an obligation to ensure the
safety of its employees, but by retaliating with excessive force, Chevron precludes its claim from being taken seriously.There are many pieces of evidence that indicate there was no hostility on the side of the Nigerian protestors; but even if there was some tension, it certainly did not warrant a brutal attack by the Nigerian national army. Earth Rights, an environmental non-profit, released a document with several key suggestions for Chevron in order to restore peace to the Niger Delta. The report advises Chevron to invest more in the communities in which it works, to adhere to strict environmental laws, and to increase its transparency and accountability when human rights abuses occur.
AFJN believes that Earth Rights’ suggestions are a step in the right direction but that ultimately, the solution to the abuse in the Niger Delta is much more complex. U.S. oil companies should not be profiting at the expense of local communities. Record profits for companies like Shell and BP are nothing more than a slap in the face to the people whose lives have been destroyed by irresponsible oil extraction. The U.S. government must step in and create tougher laws on oil companies and other U.S. corporations that seek Africa’s vast natural resource wealth. It must create incentives for green energy such that the desire for oil is suppressed. The U.S. should also work to strengthen good governance in Africa in order to dissuade corruption in countries where natural resources contribute to instability. Africa must be empowered to own its resources and to profit from them so that Africa’s wealth might finally reach the people.